Robert Jeffress - The First Christian Martyr
Hi, I'm Robert Jeffress, and welcome again to "Pathway to Victory". Over the centuries countless believers have been persecuted because of their commitment to Jesus Christ. From the beginning enemies of Christ have sabotaged every attempt to advance his cause, sometimes putting the friends of Jesus to death. Today we're going to examine one of those murders, and I'll offer some modern-day lessons on how to handle persecution. My message is titled "The First Christian Martyr" on today's edition of "Pathway to Victory".
The courtroom was buzzing with excitement. A man was on trial for his life. And although the verdict had already been predetermined, the courtroom was packed that day with people who were curious about what defense would be mounted on behalf of the accused. It sounds like a scene in the classic novel Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird". Remember the book or the movie? Tom Robinson is a black man living in the Deep South in the 1930s. He's falsely accused of raping and beating a white girl. The attorney, the white attorney, Atticus Finch played by Gregory Peck in the movie presents a brilliant defense proving that Tom Robinson was innocent, not guilty, but the jury couldn't look beyond skin color, instead they convicted Tom Robinson.
And as Atticus Finch was leaving the courtroom, all of the black citizens of that little town had been forced into the balcony to watch the proceedings. When they saw Atticus Finch passing by, they stood up in unison out of respect for the man who had tried to do the right thing. Seated in the balcony that day along with the black citizens were Atticus Finch's two children Jean Louise, who went by the nickname Scout, and Jem. And when that verdict of guilty was delivered, Scout couldn't believe it. She couldn't believe that the jury would ignore the well-reasoned arguments of her father. She sat there in disbelief until the black pastor Reverend Sykes nudged her and said, "Ms. Jean Louise, stand up. Stand up. Your father is passing by".
It's reminiscent of another courtroom scene 2,000 years ago when another man was on trial for his life, a man named Stephen. He was falsely accused, he was convicted, and he was stoned to death, and yet when he was ushered into heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ himself stood out of respect for this first Christian martyr. And today we're going to look at the account of the death of the first Christian in history for the sake of the gospel. If you have your Bibles turn to Acts chapter 6, beginning with verse 8. Up to this point in the Book of Acts, the church has been persecuted. Mainly the persecution was directed toward the apostles, and not only that, the persecution involves some light beatings and even imprisonment. But when we get to verse 8, all of that changes with the two words and Stephen. Those two worlds, the two words and Stephen lead us into a world in which Christians were and continue to be hunted down and even killed for their faith.
Now, this story of Stephen that is found in the last part of chapter 6 and all of chapter 7 can really be divided into three parts. First of all, there is the detention of Stephen, secondly, the defense of Stephen, and finally, the death of Stephen. Let's look first of all at his imprisonment, his arrest beginning in verse 8. Remember the church has been through a little squabble about taking care of widows and the church decides to appoint deacons to oversee that task. And the very first deacon selected was this man Stephen. Verse 8 says Stephen was full of grace and power and was performing great wonders and signs among the people. And he was not only performing signs, he used those signs to authenticate the preaching of the gospel. Stephen wasn't just serving tables for widows, he was preaching the gospel. And there was opposition to his message.
We see in verse 9. "But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen". In Jerusalem there were more than 500 synagogues. This particular synagogue, the Synagogue of the Freedmen, was apparently made up of Hellenistic Jews, that is Jews who had been transported from other countries to relocate in Jerusalem, and they opposed the message Stephen was preaching. Why were the Jews so opposed to this message? Well, first of all, they couldn't believe that Jesus was the Messiah, he didn't fit their thought of what the Messiah should be, but they were also infuriated at the idea that Gentiles, non-Jews like you and me, would have a part in the kingdom of God. They hated that message that Peter, John, and now Stephen were preaching.
Verse 10, "But they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen was speaking, and so they secretly induced men to say", that word induced, secretly induced, paraballo in Greek, means they paid off some witnesses to make a false accusation. And what was that false accusation? "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God". Well, if you blasphemed, you spoke out against Moses and God himself, that was enough to get you arrested. And so they arrested him, and then when they had him in custody, they expanded the charges. In verses 13 and 14, "They put forward false witnesses who said, 'This man,'" Stephen, "incessantly speaks against this holy place,'" that is the temple, "'and the law, for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this temple and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.'"
There's an old Yiddish proverb: a half truth is a whole lie. And that's what these false witnesses were doing. They were giving the half truths. Yes, Jesus had said, "Destroy this temple, and in 3 days I will raise it up," but he wasn't talking about an insurrection to destroy the temple, he was talking about a resurrection from the dead. That's the truth. And yes, it's true that Jesus expanded the Law of Moses in the Sermon on the Mount that we're going to look at this spring. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, "You've heard your father Moses say, 'Thou shalt not commit adultery,' but I say to you to look on somebody with lust is the same as committing adultery in your heart". He didn't contradict the Law of Moses, but he expanded on the Law of Moses.
Verse 15 as he spoke these words, they fixed their gaze on him. All who were sitting in the council saw his face like the face of an angel. Doesn't say he became an angel. But an angel was a messenger of God. And they saw in Stephen a determination, a readiness to deliver God's message. And now we're ready for the defense, the self-defense, of Stephen. Remember there's no chapter division in the original text. This is all one story when we get to chapter 1, verse 1, chapter 7, verse 1. And Caiaphas, the leader of the Sanhedrin, the high priest, heard the charges and he says to Stephen, "Are these things true"? verse 1, remember Caiaphas, the same high priest had presided over the first trial of Jesus. The charge was that he claimed to be the son of God. And Caiaphas asked him, "Are you indeed the son of God? Is that who you claim to be"? He's asking Stephen, "Are these charges true"?
And in response of these accusations, Stephen now delivers his defense, which is the longest recorded sermon in the Book of Acts. And here's the topic Stephen addresses in his message, and that is, what is the relationship between Judaism and Christianity? And his central idea, and every good sermon or every good Sunday school lesson has a central idea, one sentence that summarizes what you're trying to say. Here's the central idea of Stephen's message. Write it down. Christianity is not a contradiction of Judaism, it is a fulfillment of Judaism. That is what Stephen is going to prove. Christianity is not a contradiction of Judaism, it is a fulfillment of Judaism. And how does he prove that? If you just read chapter 7. I'll confess to you it seems like a boring recitation of Jewish history, but when you delve into it, as we're going to do for a few minutes this morning, you'll find that it is a carefully crafted argument that supersedes anything Perry Mason could ever come up with in a defense or Matlock or whoever your favorite lawyer is. This is a well-reasoned defense using the Old Testament.
Now, notice how he does that. First of all, Stephen's defense against blasphemy. How does he defend himself against blasphemy? He says, "Let's look at the patriarchs". Again, what were the Jews saying about Stephen? They said, "Stephen, you're a Jew, but you're not quite Jewish enough. You're letting all these Gentiles in, and we can't have that. You're not Jewish enough". And so Stephen answers, "Well, let's go back and look at our patriarchs and see. And if we look at what they believed, they illustrate the fact that God's interest always extended beyond the boundaries of Judaism". God is not just the God of Israel, he's the God of the entire world. And one way you know that is through Abraham.
Look at verse 2. And Stephen said, "Hear me, brethren and fathers. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran". You know, Abraham was kind of the George Washington of the Jewish people. He was the founder of Judaism, the founder of the nation. But Stephen had the audacity to say, "Guess what? Abraham wasn't always a Jew. There was life before Judaism. He was a Mesopotamia. He was a Gentile, and yet God chose him". People who don't know me very well they assume that because I spent 15 years ministering in Wichita Falls, Texas, I must have been from Wichita Falls, Texas. No. I passed through there. I had a ministry there, but that wasn't my whole life, as the same way with Abraham. He started out in Mesopotamia. And not only that, even though he went to the Promised Land, that's not his ultimate destination.
Hebrews 11:10 says Abraham was an alien and a stranger and he was not seeking an earthly city, but a city with foundations whose architect and builder is God. His goal was not to end up in Israel forever, it was to end up in heaven. God's interest extend beyond Israel. In Genesis 12:1 God said to Abraham, "Abraham, I will bless you and your descendants, and through you," what, "all the nations of the world will be blessed". God created Israel. Israel is special. It's God's human object lesson of his divine faithfulness and purpose, but God's purpose through Israel was to save the entire world. Christianity is not a contradiction of Judaism, it is the fulfillment of Judaism.
Next, notice Stephen's defense against slander, and that is Moses himself. If Abraham were George Washington to the Jewish people, then Moses was Abraham Lincoln to the Jewish people. He was the great law giver, the one who received, mediated the law from Mount Sinai. Remember the charge against Stephen that he had blasphemed Moses and he had tried to change the Law of Moses? Well, Stephen said, "Let's look at that for a minute. You want to talk about Moses, speaking against Moses? Look what your Jewish forefathers did to Moses. They weren't always a part of his fan club. When he tried to lead an exodus after killing that Egyptian soldier, nobody followed him. You all rejected him. And when he finally 40 years later became the leader of the Exodus, all your Jewish forefathers did was gripe and complain for 40 years in the wilderness. And you want to talk about the law you think I'm altering or changing?
Remember when Moses was on top of Mount Sinai receiving the law of God your Jewish forefathers were at the base of the mountains breaking the very law Moses was receiving". Acts 7:41 says, "At that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to that idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands". "And by the way, you think the law is so holy? Why are you breaking that right now"? Stephen said. Exodus 20:16, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbors". He said, "As long as we're talking about Moses, let's also remember," Stephen said, "that Moses himself said there was someone greater coming later than himself, the Messiah". Acts 7:37, "This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, 'God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren.'"
And then finally, the climax of his message, Stephen's defense against anarchy, Isaiah the prophet. Remember the final charge against Stephen was, "You're trying to destroy the temple. You're following Jesus who said he was going to destroy the temple". The not so subtle implication was, "If you're a follower of Jesus, you must be an insurrectionist as well". How does he respond? Now, this is really bold. Look at verse 48. Stephen says, "However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands as the prophet says". And then he quotes from Isaiah. "'Heaven is God's throne. Earth is the footstool of my feet. What kind of house will you build for me?' says the Lord. 'Or what place is there for my repose? Was it not my hand which made all of these things?'"
Now, that was Stephen's defense. How does he sum up his message? Well, he gives a summary beginning in verse 51. And will you notice it's no little namby-pamby, "Oh, can't we all just get along with one another"? Listen to how he addresses these men who had the right to order his execution. In verse 51 he says, "You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and your ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit, you are doing just as your forefathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the righteous one whose betrayers and murderers you have now become, you who received the laws ordained by angels and yet you do not keep it".
I love that boldness from Stephen. He wasn't backing down. He knew they could take his life, but they couldn't take his soul. He doesn't back down whatsoever. And so how do they react to that? Look at verse 54. "Now, when they heard this they were cut to the quick and they began gnashing their teeth at Stephen". Look at verse 55, the reaction of Stephen. "But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing," underline that, standing, "at the right hand of God, and said, 'Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.'" And when they heard Stephen claim he was seeing Jesus, verse 57 says the men covered their ears, they didn't want to hear it, and rushed toward him to take him outside of the city gates to stone him.
Now, look at verse 58. "When they had driven Stephen out of the city, they began stoning him". Verse 59, "They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.'" Does that sound familiar to you? It's what the Lord had said from the cross, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit". And then falling on his knees. Now, that means he must have been standing. He was a strong man to have endured all this still standing. "Falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.'" Again, does that remind you of something? Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they're doing".
Stephen had no power to absolve them of their guilt, only God could do that, but he was saying, his last request, his last prayer before he died was that those who were persecuting him would find the forgiveness that the gospel of Jesus Christ offers. Little did he know that the man who had ordered his stoning, presided over it, Saul of Tarsus, would soon be the recipient of that prayer request, that he would become the greatest missionary the world had ever known. "Lord, do not hold this sin against them". And having said this, Stephen fell asleep. What does that mean, he fell asleep? That's a euphemism in the Bible for dying. When a Christian dies, he falls asleep. Now, not his spirit. Our spirit, when we die, immediately goes into the presence of Jesus.
2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul would write, "To be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord". Now, I want you to notice something here. Twice in this passage Luke says that Stephen saw the Lord standing at the right hand of God. Why do I emphasize that? Because every other time in the Bible when it talks about Jesus in heaven, he is always seated at the right hand of God the Father. So why does Jesus stand at this point? I'll tell you why I think he stands. He stands out of respect, out of respect for this man, the first person in the history of the church to give his life for the sake of the gospel. Psalm 116 says, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints". He stood to welcome this first Christian martyr named Stephen. Is it possible for us to live a life so pleasing to God that when the time of death comes for us we see the Lord Jesus Christ standing up to welcome us home? Isn't that a goal worth pursuing? Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.